Trilogy from Man in Black

JANE STEVENSON

, Last Updated: 3:46 PM ET

It's a great time to be a fan of the Man in Black.

Johnny Cash has released a three-CD box set, Love, God, Murder (Columbia Legacy), that explores the title's themes.

The trilogy, also being sold as three separate CDs, features previously released songs and rarities from Cash's five-decade career. The 68-year-old country music legend personally selected and arranged the songs.

In addition, each CD features liner notes written by Cash and essays by his wife, June Carter Cash (Love), U2's Bono (God) and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Murder).

Despite his continuing battle with Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease, Cash is also working on a new album with producer Rick Rubin (who was behind the boards for 1994's American Recordings and 1998's Unchained) and it's expected to be released this year.

Plans also are in the works for a big-screen treatment of Cash's often stormy, drug-and-alcohol-filled life, to be directed by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted).

So far no one has been cast but may we suggest Russell Crowe? He's not southern, but he sure can act with an adopted accent -- and sing, too, apparently -- if his pub band, 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, is any indication.

In the meantime, here are reviews of the three discs:

Love (4.5 out of five): June Carter Cash writes about the first time she laid eyes on her future husband backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. "The strangest feeling came over me. I was afraid to look him in the eyes. I had always been able to look men in the eyes. I think I finally blurted out -- I feel like I know you already." Giddyup! Cash responds: "Never has there been a deeper love than my love for her. At times it was painful, but we shared the pain, so it was just half-painful." Eventually, June would co-write one of Cash's biggest hits, Ring Of Fire, which is included here along with 15 other love-themed tracks, most notably I Walk The Line, A Little At A Time, My Old Faded Rose, Happiness Is You, Flesh And Blood, I Tremble For You, 'Cause I Love You and I Still Miss Someone. Best lyric: "Mother Nature's quite a lady but you're the one I need," from Flesh And Blood.

God (4 out of five): Bono says Cash "doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company." Cash himself sums it up much better: "To me, God likes a southern accent and He tolerates country music and quite a bit of guitar." Thus he supplies 16 gospels, spirituals and songs of praise, the highlights of which are My God Is Real, It Was Jesus, Kris Kristofferson's Why Me Lord, The Old Account, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, When He Comes, The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea, Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord), performed with the Carter family, and Belshazzar. Best lyric: "I went down by an old country church, I saw the drunkard stagger and lurch," from The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea.

Murder (5 of five): After Quentin Tarantino argues that Cash's songs detailing "hillbilly thug life" were a precursor to those about "ghetto thug life," written by today's gangsta rappers, Cash warns: "These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it." Whatever. Of the three CDs, this collection is by far the most fun to sing along to.

Check out the track listing: Folsom Prison Blues, When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below), performed with June Carter, Cocaine Blues, recorded live at Folsom Prison, Hardin Wouldn't Run, The Long Black Veil, Austin Prison, Joe Bean, Going To Memphis, Don't Take Your Guns To Town and Bruce Springsteen's Highway Patrolman. Best lyric: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," from Folsom Prison Blues, and "I got a gal in Vicksburg, Bertha is her name, wish I was tied to Bertha, instead of this ball and chain," from Going To Memphis.


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